Monday, October 19, 2009

Introducing Anthropology

The word ‘anthropology’ derives from the Greek and literally means ‘the study of man’ or ‘the science of man’. But the ‘man’ of anthropology was a special kind of ‘man’. Historically, anthropology was known as the ‘study of primitive man’.

In The Mind of Primitive Man (1938), Franz Boas, the founder of American Cultural Anthropology, delineated that primitive people are people whose forms of life are simple and uniform, and the contents and form of whose culture are meagre and intellectually inconsistent.

Anthropologists study people, individuals in the society. They study how people live, human society past and present. Anthropology is also about how we think about people thinking about people, now and in history. And sometimes it is about power relations between people, cultures and societies, colonialism and globalization. In brief, anthropology is: 1) the study of man from biological, cultural and social viewpoints; 2) the study of human cultural difference; 3) the search for generalizations about human culture and human nature; and 4) the comparative analysis of similarities and differences between cultures.

Today, anthropology is defined as the systematic study of the ‘other’ while all other social sciences are in some sense the study of the ‘self’. But who is the ‘other’? The ‘other’ is anyone perceived as different and used to ‘inter-define’ one’s own identity; or simply say people of non-Western cultures. Nevertheless, in Reinventing Anthropology (1969), Dell Hymes argued: “the very existence of an autonomous discipline that specializes in the study of ‘others’ has always been somewhat problematic.”

There are two things need to be highlighted. First, the ‘other’ has changed. Non-Western societies have undergone rapid social change. And second, anthropology has come home. It no longer exclusively studies non-Western cultures. Now anthropologists also study marginal cultures in the Western societies as well as institutional and organizational cultures, such as business and corporate organizations, scientists, health organizations, and the police.

Anthropology, as a modern discipline and a professional career, begins with the establishment of university’s departments teaching anthropology as a course. In America, Boas began lecturing at Columbia University in 1896. While in Britain, a new diploma in anthropology was introduced at Oxford in 1906. In Britain, the term ‘anthropology’ loosely designates a number of different branches of study which are more or less closely associated. Yet, sometimes the association derives rather from the historical fact that they developed as socio-cultural evolutionary studies of man. Thus physical anthropology, prehistoric archaeology, primitive technology, ethnology and ethnography are usually subsumed with social anthropology under the name of anthropology. Nevertheless, it is not true to say that they are not related to sociology because its problems and methods overlap with those of social anthropology in a considerable degree. Therefore, it is not surprising that the term ‘anthropology’ connotes different things to different people, even when it is assigned with the adjective ‘social’. As a consequence, social anthropology may mean an interest in bones and head measurements, a concern with prehistoric man and his works and also it may mean an obsessive interest in exotic, preferably sexual, customs.

Alan Barnard in History and Theory of Anthropology names the French philosopher Charles Montesquieu (1669-1755) as the common ancestor of all modern anthropology. Anthropology marks its inauguration in 1748 with the publication of his The Spirits of the Laws. It is a product of the enlightenment. Then the Darwinian horizon flourished in the 1860s when great names, such as Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Lewis Henry Morgan, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, and Sir James Frazer, define the intellectual tradition that leads to modern anthropology. When Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown established the practice of ethnography, the extended study of how people live and where they live, modern anthropology is underway.

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